Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What I learned from my old bosses

I was reminiscing with some former colleagues I used to work with about an old boss we had. She was a battle-ax. I have been in my own business for so long that I never had too many bosses but I learned from them all.

When I got right out of art school in the early 80s I applied for several jobs. Through a family connection I applied and eventually was hired by a pharmaceutical company designing suppository boxes (among other things). As a 21 year old kid I was happy to get any art related job (even only remotely related to art). I graduated from college knowing how to paint and do silk screening so I didn't have too many skills. But times were different and jobs were all around. My boss there was a very nice guy and we shared a lot in common. He loved art fairs like I did (attending and as a craftsman) and was an even tempered and overall nice guy. His boss, however was a bit of a tyrant. One year there was a terrible hurricane coming through the area. Most people stayed home to prepare but our office was open. Several people, including my boss's boss still came to work. I stayed home. The company quickly saw how bad the weather was getting and sent everyone home in less than an hour. My thoughtful boss' boss made me take the whole day as a vacation day since I didn't come in. I'll always remember him for that.

Another time the divisions big boss wanted someone to do some signage for his wife's bridge club or something and my boss' boss volunteered me to do it after work. When I complained to him (I was a feisty kid) he said I was to do anything they said I had to do. I argued (a bit) but did the work. I liked the paycheck!

I left that job after a few years and joined a large publishing company in Boston.-where that battle-ax worked. This woman was a hard drinking, rough and tumble woman who had to fight her way up the corporate ladder and wasn't going to take guff from anyone. After a long liquid lunch she would often roam the halls of her domain looking for someone to chew out. No kidding but her secretary used to try and run ahead and warn people to scatter. One time I was stuck in my cubicle on the phone and couldn't get away. She called me into her office and chewed me out for half hour about a project I did not work on or had ever even heard of.

Another time we were all celebrating after a very long and arduous few months getting a new series out to the printer. Someone in the company (not my boss) had t-shirts printed up for all the team members and told us to come around and get a shirt. At the time we had as many freelancers as we had full time staff. When the collected team went over to grab our free shirts this woman stepped up and said it was only for full time staff, not freelancers. Even though the box was overflowing this woman turned these people away. The same people who worked with us full timers all those months. I'll never forget that either!

Now I am the boss and have 18 people who report to me. I learned from my old bosses. I learned how not to treat staff. I see their examples and try to treat people in the opposite way. I am certainly not the best but I always try to treat people as I would have wanted to be treated (hey maybe we can call that the golden rule ;). We are all under stress but it doesn't take much to treat people with respect.

Someday someone on my staff may write a blog and mention me and I hope its for all the good reasons!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Back from the Brink-or How I worked for a year for an offshore company

Many businesses were affected with the downturn of the economy in 2008. My design business was not an exception. After 20 plus years in business I contemplated closing up and moving on. I enjoyed my hobby of carpentry but could I turn that into a new career? With an ex-wife and two kids of almost college age I was in a tough bind. And what about the workers who were still with me? I owed it to them to try and stay afloat as well.

I work in the textbook field and over the years have gotten to know my "competition"well-those other studios that I am usually bidding against for work. I saw several fold and others merge with offshore companies to try and stay afloat. These mergers basically panned out as keeping only a handful of people working stateside and having the bulk of the production work done overseas where the costs were cheap. Publishers embraced this notion and were now only willing to pay for jobs that could only be done overseas.

With things spiraling down I was called for a meeting by an old friend who had been let go from a large publishing house. I thought he wanted to meet to talk about job leads. Rather he wanted to see if I wanted to merge my company with the offshore group he now worked with. They needed someone to run their NY office as well as maintain a new office here in Boston. I jumped at the chance. It meant I could not only keep my business and my people working but I could generate an income for myself again.

Working as part of an offshore company is different than anything I had been used to. Luckily they had some ongoing jobs and I was able to bring in some new work myself so we started out keeping two locations very busy. And after 20 years of "running the show" I was happy to just be a cog for a while. I didn't have to worry about the electric bill or payroll.

But you find out quickly when your home office is around the world you spend most of your day justifying your existence. Since they are not here to see the daily ups and downs of the work at hand you are forever filling out excel forms quantifying every action. I went from being an art director to a number cruncher with very strict demands including expenses I could use for my state side workers. I was not bitter about this. I actually understood their needs to stay on top of the work and expenses and to try and move as much as they could overseas. I just didn't like it.

One benefit was to get to know the people overseas I was working with. In between the number crunching you had chances to talk about their lives, their families and you find out they are not very different. They were just looking for a way to earn a living and provide for their families, same as me.

The great experiment lasted just a year. The offshore office had some money issues and found it cheaper to first close the NY office and then work its way up to us. When we were down to just two full time workers I knew I had better start thinking of a new solution. Again I wasn't upset. Its a business after all. So I decided to take a chance and go back out on my own. Its what I always loved best.

Luck comes in many ways. I got a call from an old client who wanted us to work on a large project with a budget that would allow me to not only retain all our staff but necessitate doubling our size. I take it as a good sign. I enjoyed my year with the offshore company. I learned a lot and met many new people all across the world. But I am happy to be back out on my own and yes, calling the shots. I know nothing lasts forever but I am now busier than I have ever been. And that means, for now anyway, I can keep my carpentry skills just to the projects I do at home!

Monday, January 28, 2013

To rhyme or not to rhyme

As a partner in Red Chair press I often see submissions that are written in rhyme. If you know me you know I am not a fan. Why do people think that a story for children should be written in rhyme? I think it's one of those stereotypes of children's publishing.

People have rightly pointed out to me that stories in rhyme help children learn though the use of repetition among other reasons. I agree.

But if you write in rhyme you have even MORE hurdles to get over rather than just writing the story simply.

For one thing- rhyming is harder! I can imagine a writer scratching his head to come up with a rhyme and thus changing what he intended to say. I call this forcing the rhyme and it usually changes the intent and does not help the story.

The other problem is the meter of the line readings. You want to get that nice "sing-song" meter going as you read it. Read any Dr Suess story and you pick up his amazing ability to keep perfect meters. But for the novice you often find a line or two that makes your tongue "stumble". This will not only make the reader upset as they won't now how to get back on track but doesn't help the flow of the story.

Arnold Lobel was an amazing writer as well as a top notch illustrator. One of his Frog and Toad stories opens with these lines:

Frog knocked at Toad's door.
"Toad, wake up," he cried.
"Come out and see how wonderful the winter is!"
"I will not," said Toad.
"I am in my warm bed."
"Winter is beautiful," said Frog.
"Come out and have fun."

I am sure you could say all that in cute rhyming lines and you can argue that that would help a child learn better but I can't imagine the text being done any better.

Of course Arnold also wrote in rhyme himself! Check out The Book Pigericks. Amazing as is all his work but I am sure it was a lot harder to write!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why don't you draw anymore?

When people learn that I started out as an illustrator they are surprised. Very few people who know me now don't know I can draw (and quite well sometimes if I do say so myself).

I started out wanting to be an illustrator of children's books. My mother and my aunt are born artists and always kept me well stocked with art supplies. It was always expected that I would be an artist in one form or another.

I studied art in college and even before I graduated I was pounding the pavement in NY to show my portfolio to publishers.

A few editors suggested I try to write my own books. I kept correcting them that I was an "artist" not a "writer". But after a while it started to sink in and my first book ever published was as an author and illustrator (Timothy and the Night Noises-you'll find it in all the best bargin bins if there are any left). I went on to publish about a dozen books and almost all were with my own stories and art. It was funny but I fell in love with the writing part and less so with the drawing itself!  The reason was that my books were always under horrendous deadlines. With a full time job I had to plow through the art to make my deadlines. It wasn't easy but I was happy people wanted my work. Illustrating is a very lonely business. Its you in a room with as few distractions as possible.

Of course I still had to work full time and the books seemed to take a back seat to my design career. When I rediscovered writing with Red Chair Press I had the chance to write for kids again. I loved it! But I had even more fun finding artists I loved to hire. They drew much better than I did and I tried to give them as much time as I could for them to do all the pictures.

But I have not given up being an artist at all. I'm a woodworker, painter, carver and anything else I want to try. Just the past weekend I finished building my own fence in the front of the house. The planning and work was just as rewarding as any illustration work I had done. And I still had the satisfaction of seeing the final product and knowing that I made it with my own hands. Creativity takes many forms.

Both my boys have the "gift" but when I push they shy away from it. I can only hope they they too will find their need to create no matter what form that takes place.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What's in a name?

I hate to admit it but I don't like my own name. Oh the "Dinardo" part is fine. Its the "Jeff" part I've never been partial to.

My Dad is first generation Italian. Both his parents were born in Italy and he was always part of a large family in the Bronx. His name is Frank and he was always surrounded by other family members named "Frank", "Frankie", "Tony", Big Tony", (you get the idea).

So when Dad married my nice German mother he wanted to change things. He named his first born "Richard" which was pretty "American sounding." But he pulled out all the stops when I came along. No offense to all the wonderful people in the world named "Jeff" but to me it has such a blah sound to it. So white, so generic. "Sergio", now that's a name I can live with. "Sergio Dinardo" has a nice ring to it!

Of course when I got married I was no better. My ex wife's name is Kristine so when our oldest son was born we named him Erik. The "K" on the end coming from the spelling of her name. Its a common name but we liked the twist.

When my second child was about to be born we had expected it to be a girl. When we found out that he would be born male we were stumped. We had ruled out so many names when we named his brother. After the doctor's visit we stopped for a lunch. As we thought about the fact that we were going to have another son we ran through new possible names. Across the street was a shop called "Alex's coffee shop" and we both looked at it. "Alex Dinardo," we both said and liked it. So it was decided right then and there. We toyed with "Alec" for a few minutes but knew he would spend his life correcting people that it wasn't "Alex". Also, neither of us were big fans of "Alexander" so we just named him "Alex". I remember when we first brought him to day care when he was 3 or 4 and one of the staff kept calling him "Alexander". I bit my tongue the first few times but then I had to quietly correct her. "His name is Alex," I said "Its not short for Alexander."

I have known some people with very interesting names. I know a Bonnie Lass, a Kelley Green and my favorite-an old high school friend named Timothy Burr. Why is that funny you ask? Well what did we always call him out when we saw him in the halls at school? "TIMBER" (Get it?)

When I see my sons I can not imagine them being named anything else. And I know my parents think the same of me. Still, if you see me, a little "Hi Sergio" is guaranteed to get me to smile.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Traveling Man

I am the first to admit it but I'm not a good traveler. Not sure why that is but I think I get the "stay at home" genes from my mom. I tend to get very comfortable where I am and have not had that wonderlust to see the world (or even other parts of the country). I'm always fretting about missing planes or forgetting to pack something I know I'll need. I tend to be a creature of habit and even when I go on vacations I tend to want to go to the same places over and over again.

All that changed when I met Maria. My girlfriend was born to travel and will take any opportunity to pack up and go. She has had me out on short excursions to the cape (in winter) and discovering new places that you can easily drive to.

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Frankfurt, Germany for a convention. The "old" Jeff would have passed that one by without question ("They don't even speak English there! Its almost like they are trying to confuse me"). But Maria rearranged her work schedule and we were off. She did the itinerary, booked the hotels, got the rental car and planned the whole trip. As we took the overnight flight to Frankfurt she couldn't sleep because she was so excited. I couldn't sleep because I kept worrying if I packed enough clothes and how was I going to order breakfast?

But I found the country amazing and the people easy to talk to (in English mostly but I did learn to say "Excuse me-do you know how to speak English?" in perfect German). For the first week most days were spent on the convention room floor but at night we discovered great local restaurants. A trick my father taught me to find a great "non touristy" restaurant was to ask the bellhops where they ate. It never goes wrong. The second week we rented a car and we were off discovering the countryside with stops along the way.

We got lost on our way to seeing one castle and stopped to ask directions. Without speaking German and with the local people not understanding a word of English we parlayed our game of charades into an automobile escort showing us the way. My mother's side is German so I already had a great taste for the food but we only had one meal that Maria and I will remember with a shiver.

After two weeks we were home. Tired and broke. We are already planning our next trip (Italy this time-when we can afford it). But in the mean time I'm back to being the old me. I do occasionally watch the travel channel and imagine what it would be like to see these exotic places-but glad I can see them from the comfort of my own couch!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dick Gackenbach

You my not recognize the name but I hope you do. I have always been a fan of author and illustrator Dick Gackenbach. When I was a teen in CT I remember going to an amazing bookstore in the town of Washington Depot. They had a small section of locally authored books and that's when I first found out about Mr Gackenbach. I was instantly taken by his humorous drawings and simple, thoughtful stories.

He had worked as an Art Director at J.C. Penny and took to illustrating after he retired. As a struggling illustrator myself at the time I had hopes that I could do the same thing.

Years later when I worked at Houghton Mifflin I was put in charge of hiring artists to do a series of posters for a reading series. I used it as an opportunity to track Dick down and see if I could get him to work for me. Those were the days before the internet but he still lived in Washington Depot and I found him easily. He not only did the poster work but I got to use him on a few other projects.

I've mentioned before how one big perk of doing what I do is to get to work with artists whose work I loved. Dick was no exception. He was easy to work with and he always let me know about his new trade books long before they came out.

I lost touch after a few years but stayed a fan of his new books, Only recently I found out that he past away in 2001. But I still have a collection of his books and smile every time I read them. His work for J.C. Penny may never be remembered but his books live on.